Ai Weiwei has been a practicing artist for over four decades, and his controversial and thought-provoking works have often dubbed him as China’s ‘most dangerous man'. There is a fine line between where his life begins and his art ends, making its expression and imagery all that more powerful. From being imprisoned for 81 days as a Chinese political prisoner to being severely beaten for testifying in court, Ai Weiwei has proven time and time again that art is powerful tool for inspiring social change.
Ai Weiwei’s relationship with activism started when he was very young. Shortly after Ai Weiwei was born, Ai’s father, who was one of China’s most renowned poets, was accused of being a rightist and as a result, his whole family was exiled to a labor camp. After being exiled in 1958, Ai’s family was only allowed to return to Beijing in 1976—18 years later—at the end of the cultural revolution. Coming from a long line of freethinkers, Ai was one of many men in his family who was viewed as a threat to China’s ’harmonious society’.
If you’re familiar with Ai Weiwei’s work, you know that his intention to provoke or incite action among viewers has not always garnered him praise—especially from the Chinese government. A perfect example of this intentional antagonization was Ai’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which engendered a new sense of political duty within his work. After the devastating earthquake, the Chinese government censored all of the information surrounding the event, including the death toll. In an attempt to uncover an accurate death toll, Ai used the internet to set up a citizen investigation team of over 100 people. Ai and his team began collecting a database of names, dates of birth, schools, and more over the next few months. In a brazen attempt to bring transparency to the reporting around the Sichuan earthquake, dozens of Ai’s team members were arrested and all of the collected names and photographs of deceased school children were deleted. The blog was eventually shut down by the Chinese government due to its increasing popularity. Stepping outside of the role of artist and into the role of activist, Ai’s work is deeply informed by working through the issues he aims to address.
In an artistic response to the Sichuan tragedy, Ai Weiwei created an installation called Remembering on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Constructed by 9000 children’s backpacks, the installation spelled out a sentence from a mother whose child died in the earthquake: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”. Two months before the opening of the exhibition, Ai suffered a severe beating from Chinese police in Chengdu as he tried testifying for a fellow investigator of the student casualties. Despite his international success and global reputation as an activist and conceptual artist, China continues to send clear messages that no one is ‘untouchable’ in the eyes of the Chinese State. This project enlivened something within the artist, as he explains: “It’s about a real-life tragedy, the human condition, civil rights – an embodiment of my passion and imagination. If I hadn’t engaged with that tragedy, I would not be the artist I am today.”
With an unrelenting dedication to championing civil rights through his actions and work, Ai uses various techniques, methodologies, and mediums to explore the broad subject matter that informs his work. In 1994, Ai decorated a Han Dynasty urn (dating back to roughly 100AD) with the red Coca-Cola logo, creating a sharp juxtaposition between the urns anthropological importance and the mass production associated with contemporary American culture. A year later, Ai photographed himself dropping and smashing another Han Dynasty urn. Between 1995 – 2010, Ai produced a series called Study of Perspective, where his hand was photographed giving the middle finger to various institutions, landmarks and monuments from around the world. Having gained global recognition for this and other provocative works, Ai Weiwei explained: “I was born radical. I did not become radical.”
Today, Ai Weiwei is still actively involved in bringing awareness to human rights injustices around the world, and has been very vocal about Hong Kong’s recent extradition bill. If you’re unfamiliar with this bill, we will try our best to simplify it: Hong Kong’s government is attempting to pass a law that would for the first time allow extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region, and when the British agreed to give the city back in 1997, China agree to allow a high-degree of autonomy for 50 years, including guarantees of free speech, capitalist markets and common law. So what’s the issue? Opponents of the bill are concerned that it could open the door for anyone, including political dissidents or civil rights activists, who protest the Chinese government to be arrested in Hong Kong and sent to the mainland, where they could face China’s strict legal system. This bill would not only apply to Hong Kong citizens, but to people passing through on business or as tourists.
Ai Weiwei explained that the gradual violence incited by the police at extradition protests brings about a memory of what happened in Tianamen Square over thirty years ago, when anywhere from 200 to 3,000 people were killed (numbers reported by the Chinese government and other organizations show a major disparity) in peaceful protests: “And the end of it is tanks with a lot of people being harmed and killed so that can also be what happens in Hong Kong with this kind of society. They have no skill or not even will to communicate, to talk about issues, to come out with a better solution.” Ai explained that the controversial extradition bill would put every Hong Kong-er in danger. Whether or not you agree with his methods and ideology, Ai Weiwei is a beacon of hope for us all. Willing to sacrifice himself, his livelihood, and even in some circumstances, his life, Ai Weiwei is the epitome of how powerful art and activism can be.